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Race to the Finish 

Battling civil rights regressions in the big shadow of the recall

Thursday, Aug 14 2003
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Illustration by Juan Alvarado

Summer in L.A. took a little longer than usual to heat up this year, but last Thursday the scorch was on, and will more than likely continue through October. How fitting that it was also the day that opponents of Proposition 54, Ward Connerly’s latest anti-race measure also known as the Racial Privacy Initiative, gathered downtown beneath a blazing sun to kick off an intense statewide campaign to defeat the measure on October 7. The crowd of about 200 held a rally on the steps of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration without the benefit of shade, but with plenty of spirit and indignation over the proposition, which seeks to ban the collection and analysis of ethnic data in everything in the public sector from education to health research to hate-crime monitoring. Those who attended the rally say that the sheer scope of Prop. 54 makes it infinitely more dangerous to the progress of civil rights and social justice than its predecessor, Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative-action measure passed in 1996 that was also championed by Connerly. But because the media are almost exclusively focused on a wild-card recall gubernatorial election that gets wilder by the day, Prop. 54 has been mostly flying under the radar of public discourse. Opponents therefore want to ensure that voters know enough about the measure to know it’s a bad idea that should be rejected — by all people, not just people of color. “This is just trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” said Damon Azali of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. “Prop. 54 is basically telling us all to stop being hyphenated Americans. That’s crazy.”

The good news is that Prop. 54 appears to have forged an opposition that is broader and more visibly multi-ethnic than 209, which was almost always framed as a black issue. Prop. 209 was seen as divisive because it forced voters to consider, among other things, such complex and discomfiting subjects as the meaning of white privilege and institutional black failure. Selling No on Prop. 54 is far less loaded; it asks only that people preserve the current process of information gathering that benefits all. There are no winners and losers in the game of college admissions, and therefore no sides to choose, as there was with affirmative action. But there is certainly much at stake, not only for the people of color who have the most clear-cut interest in tracking trends within their own communities, but for much of the public sector whose job it is to figure out how those trends should affect policy and resource distribution. In addition to predictably supportive organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP, last week’s rally attracted many city and county officials who might otherwise have sat out the fight over a state

measure, especially in the midst of what’s shaping up to be the most chaotic political moment in California history. “How can we live in a city or state that is healthy if we cut out our tongues?” demanded Councilman Eric Garcetti in one of the afternoon’s more emotional moments. “This proposition is asking us to be invisible. It’s asking us to turn out the lights.” Garcetti tapped into a spiritual theme that was evident in many of the remarks made at last week’s rally; the feeling is that Prop. 54, besides being bad law, is bad for the soul
because it’s fundamentally an attempt to dismantle the very notion of ethnic identity, which for many is tied to personal identity. Activist pastor Reverend William Campbell declared Prop. 54 “reprehensible, repugnant and demonic” and warned that supporting it and similar legislation is tantamount to “contributing to the destruction of humanity.”

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On a slightly less dramatic note, Campbell and others say that with this latest initiative the African-American Connerly is simply trying to foist his own longstanding racial denial onto an unsuspecting public. The fast-moving strategy to defeat it is being coordinated statewide by the umbrella group Coalition for an Informed California, which is seeking to rouse the public with education and voter registration; in Los Angeles, grass-roots urban groups such as ACORN and AGENDA plan to register some 20,000 new voters by September 22, the last day people can register to vote before the October 7 election. Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas chairs the L.A.-based African-American Voter Registration and Education Project, which is working to ensure that happens. AGENDA director Anthony Thigpenn is optimistic — his organization helped to register scores of voters in ’96 during the anti-209 campaign, and though the measure prevailed statewide, it was significantly voted down in Los Angeles County.

Another question mark is whether the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) will prevail in a suit it filed to strike down Prop. 54 in Monterey County, arguing that it violates a civil rights requirement that voters have at least 100 days to study ballot materials; if MALDEF wins, Prop. 54 would be stricken from the ballot everywhere else. The ACLU and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have also filed a lawsuit alleging that the whole election fails to follow a federal ruling by not allowing enough time to properly upgrade ballots, particularly in communities of color. At this point, No on 54 is taking nothing for granted. “Many people still do not even know this thing is on the ballot,” says Ridley-Thomas. “We’ll keep going until it’s defeated one way or another.”

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